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Trump verdict could be a litmus test for where Republican party is headed

SCOTT DETROW, HOST:

Now, on the line, we've got NPR senior national political correspondent Mara Liasson. Hey, Mara.

MARA LIASSON, BYLINE: Hi, Scott.

DETROW: Let's pick up on that last point. You have been calling...

LIASSON: Yep.

DETROW: ...Donald Trump a stress test for democracy for eight-plus years now. How does this factor in?

LIASSON: This is going to be the biggest stress he can put on the system because what his strategy has been during this trial was to undermine faith in the justice system in case he got convicted. This is exactly the moment that he's been planning for, calling this a witch hunt, rigged. He knew that he had basically two ways to win. One was to be acquitted or have a hung jury, but the other was to convince enough people - voters - that this was a completely illegitimate exercise - what that will do to American democracy over time when you - when a former president, possibly the next president, spends a lot of time and effort trying to undermine people's faith in the rule of law, in the justice system.

This is going to - as Tim Naftali suggested, this is going to be a kind of litmus test for Republicans. There already were some other litmus tests, like the 2020 election was rigged, or they won't accept any results of an election unless Donald Trump wins, so the peaceful transfer of power is something that the Republican Party doesn't believe in. And then, now, they're going to say they also don't believe in the justice system. So those have some pretty deep and far-reaching consequences, and I don't think we quite know the extent of what that'll be.

DETROW: Right. You've seen up and down - from the House speaker on - Republicans defending Trump, attacking this verdict by 12 New York jurors. I mean, this also leads to the question that we've been asking over and over again. But if you step back, it's a strange question. Is there a way that this guilty verdict in a criminal trial could help Trump politically because of the way that he has framed his campaign in grievance and saying, I'm the victim, and I'm being attacked because I'm fighting for you?

LIASSON: Well, sure. I mean, that's - you know, his grievances have been central to all of his campaigns - his political life, really. And we saw that, certainly, they helped him inside the Republican Party in the primaries. There's no doubt about that. The question that we were always asking ourselves was, what happens when he gets to a general election? And what we do know from polling is - including from the latest NPR/PBS NewsHour/Marist poll which came out today - is that 67% of registered voters said that a guilty verdict would make no difference in how they vote, but 17% said it would be less likely. Fifteen percent said more likely.

We also know from the primary polls that even Trump voters and Nikki Haley voters, when asked, if he was convicted, would that make you less likely to vote for him? - and a fair number of them said yes. Now, that was a hypothetical question. All of a sudden, it's not hypothetical anymore. So we'll see how that plays out. Up until now, it's been something that has helped him with his base, but we have some new facts on the ground here.

DETROW: And the last two elections have been incredibly close. The polls show it close, even with Trump ahead, and even a small amount of those voters shifting could make a difference in those key states we care about.

LIASSON: Yeah, absolutely. And - but I do think that this is going to affect the tenor of the race. Right now, you've got one candidate that says he doesn't believe in the justice system. He did that in 2020, when even 61 judges, many appointed by him, looked at the election results, said that they were free of fraud, and he rejected that.

DETROW: Mmm hmm. Mara Liasson...

LIASSON: And he'll do it again.

DETROW: ...We've got about 30 seconds left. What are your biggest questions about how Joe Biden handles this as a president and a candidate?

LIASSON: Well, that's going to be really interesting. He's going to clearly stand up for the rule of law, but he is now running against a convicted felon, and I think you're going to see his surrogates hammer that home almost every single day. It's unclear to me what Joe Biden himself will do.

DETROW: Thanks, Mara.

LIASSON: Thank you.

(SOUNDBITE OF LOLA YOUNG SONG, "CONCEITED") Transcript provided by NPR, Copyright NPR.

NPR transcripts are created on a rush deadline by an NPR contractor. This text may not be in its final form and may be updated or revised in the future. Accuracy and availability may vary. The authoritative record of NPR’s programming is the audio record.

Mara Liasson is a national political correspondent for NPR. Her reports can be heard regularly on NPR's award-winning newsmagazine programs Morning Edition and All Things Considered. Liasson provides extensive coverage of politics and policy from Washington, DC — focusing on the White House and Congress — and also reports on political trends beyond the Beltway.